Genesis 35: Your Name Shall Be Israel
A Homily for ADOTS Morning Prayer: 5 February 2021
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Prospective parents face many difficult decisions. One of the weightiest is this: what to name their child. “What about Emma?” the father asks. “I’ve always liked that name.” And the mother-to-be almost snarls, “No! I went to middle school with an Emma. What a pretentious snob!” And then she continues, “I was thinking maybe Caroline.” The father-to-be blushes and shakes his head. “Hard pass on that one. I dated a Caroline and that did not end well.” And so it goes through a list of potential names and a litany of reasons why none of them is any good, until…until one of the parents broaches a name and the proverbial light bulb goes on. Yes, yes, that’s it. That’s who we want our child to be.
Names are more than just labels we hang on people, more than just tags by which teachers call the roll. In ways we can’t quite put our fingers on, names shape us; they both reflect our identity and form our identity. Names aren’t interchangeable. My brother, the family’s first-born son, carries on our father’s name as a “junior.” I don’t. And I think that probably made a difference in his identity and in mine. Names matter.
In our Western culture, names have associations, but not typically meanings. So, “How did you get your name?” is a reasonable question, but “What does your name mean?” is more likely to be met with confusion. Google tells me that John, my name, is a “theophoric name originating from the Hebrew name Yohanan” meaning ‘Yahweh has been gracious.’” I’m sure my parents didn’t know that. They just liked the name John and perhaps associated it with someone they knew and liked: association but not meaning. But, in Scripture, names have meanings — meanings that reflect, bestow, and shape identity. When someone is given a name in Scripture, and especially when someone’s name is changed in Scripture, that is a significant moment, and we do well to pay attention.
We see that in our reading this morning from Genesis 35:
Genesis 35:9–10 (ESV): 9 God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram, and blessed him. 10 And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he called his name Israel.
“Your name is Jacob,” God says. But why? What meaning does that have? For that we need the birth story of Jacob and Esau.
Genesis 25:24–26 (ESV): 24 When [Rebekah’s] days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
Esau the firstborn, was also called Edom, a nickname meaning “red” for the color of his hair and the red stew for which he traded his birthright. Jacob was born holding his brother’s heel, trying to pull his brother back into the womb so that he might be born first, so that he might cheat his brother out of the birthright. His name, Jacob, sounds like “heel” or “cheater” in Hebrew: Jacob the heel-holder, Jacob the cheater. There is no indication that God gave these names; these are human choices, made, it seems, almost in jest: the twin brothers Red and Cheater. It sounds like the beginning of a Southern joke. Of course, in Jacob’s case, the name was either formative or prophetic; Jacob cheated his way through life, at the expense of his brother Red.
After years of exile in his mother’s territory — on the run from his brother Red — Jacob the cheater returns home. The night before he faces Esau, Jacob faces God.
Genesis 32:25–29 (ESV): 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.
Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel: one who strives with God — no longer the one who cheats man, but the one who strives with, who struggles with God. This is a watershed moment, a climax in the story-to-date. The name Israel not only reflects Jacob’s new character, but will form the identity of all his offspring throughout all generations to come. It becomes the unique vocation of a people. Israel is that people — alone of all the earth — whose unique calling, whose unique vocation, is to struggle with Yahweh, with the God who created heaven and earth, with the God who made covenant with Abraham. Other peoples will create civilization: art, philosophy, literature, science — the Greeks perhaps foremost among them. Other peoples will conquer and rule, stamping their image on the world; Rome comes to mind. But not Israel; these are not Israel’s vocations. Israel alone will be the people who struggles with God.
That struggle will take them into Egypt and subject them to slavery there. That struggle will deliver them from slavery into a wilderness experience. That struggle will dominate their keeping and their breaking of the Law. That struggle will persist throughout the formation and dissolution of the kingdom and will drive them into exile, right back to Rebekah’s homeland. That struggle with God, that struggle to become a holy people, a kingdom of priests, will evermore dominate the experience and define the identity of Israel. Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel.
There is something holy about the struggle, something that honors God and elevates the strugglers into his presence. Jesus responded to such struggle when he saw it; perhaps he even delighted in it. Listen to this:
Matthew 15:21–28 (ESV): 21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Even though this woman was a Gentile — a Canaanite — she was in this moment Israel, and even better than Israel. She struggled with God, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and she prevailed. Like Jacob wrestling with God at the Jabbok, she would not let go until God blessed her. And later, when Jesus was approaching Jerusalem for the final time, he went out of Jericho accompanied by a great crowd:
Matthew 20:30–34 (ESV): 30 And behold, there were two blind men sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was passing by, they cried out, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 31 The crowd rebuked them, telling them to be silent, but they cried out all the more, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 32 And stopping, Jesus called them and said, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” 34 And Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they recovered their sight and followed him.
Hush! the crowds told these men. You’re embarrassing us and yourselves. But these blind men paid them no heed. They were in a battle, not with the crowds; they were struggling with God: “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” These two blind men were, in that moment, more Israel that all the Scribes and Pharisees, than all the priests and Sadducees put together. And Jesus stopped. And Jesus asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” And Jesus restored their sight. These blind men would not be silent until God blessed them.
Examples abound in both Old and New Testaments, but you get the point. God has chosen a people whose unique vocation it is to struggle with him — not so much to struggle against him, though that did happen — but to struggle with him toward holiness, and in that way to be the light of the world and a blessing to all the nations. In Christ, we have been grafted into the rootstock of Israel, which means it is now our vocation to struggle with God: not to strive for power or honor or pleasure or wealth, but to struggle with God toward holiness. It is our unique vocation among all the peoples of the world. In this lies our salvation and the salvation of the world.
Time fails me now. I cannot explore with you the implications of this identity, of this struggle. But I can, and I do, challenge you to continue to work it out for yourselves with fear and trembling.
What does it mean to struggle with God in worship?
What does it mean to struggle with God in prayer?
What does it mean to struggle with God in service?
What does it mean to struggle with God in faith and hope and love?
What does it mean for us to be Israel?
Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel. Amen.